The conversations between retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and a Russian envoy that have been at the center of a yearslong political firestorm were declassified by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and made public on Friday.
Revealed was a key exchange that took place on Dec. 29, 2016, in which Flynn, then Trump's incoming national security adviser, urged Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to have Moscow limit itself to "reciprocal" actions in response to U.S. penalties on Russia for interfering in the election.
Flynn would be removed as national security adviser a few short weeks into his tenure in February 2017 after it was believed he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about what he said in this conversation, and it became the crux of a criminal case that was woven into special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
“What I would ask you guys to do — and make sure you, make sure that you convey this, okay? — do not, do not uh, allow this administration to box us in, right now, okay?” Flynn said, according to the transcript.
Kislyak said he’d conveyed that to Russian leadership.
"Depending on what actions they take over this current issue of the cyber stuff, you know, where they're looking like they're gonna, they're gonna dismiss some number of Russians out of the country … but what I would ask Russia to do is … to only make it reciprocal,” Flynn said, adding, “Don't go any further than you have to. Because I don't want us to get into something that has to escalate, on a, you know, on a tit for tat.”
“You might appreciate the sentiments that are raging in Moscow,” Kislyak replied.
“I know, I — believe me, I do appreciate it, I very much appreciate it," Flynn said. "But I really don't want us to get into a situation where we're going, you know, where we do this and then you do something bigger, and then you know, everybody's got to go back and forth and everybody's got to be the tough guy here, you know?”
Flynn urged Russia to keep things “even-keeled” and said that when the Trump administration took office “we can then have a better conversation about where, where we're gonna go … regarding our relationship.”
Earlier that day, the Obama administration responded to Russia’s election interference by expelling 35 Russian officials and leveling sanctions against Russia.
The transcripts, which have some redactions, were sent to Congress on Friday and shared with the media, including the Washington Examiner, shortly thereafter. They include discussions from a Dec. 23, 2016, call involving Flynn, Kislyak, and Russian diplomat Aleksandr Pchelyakov; a Dec. 29, 2016, call between Flynn and Kislyak; a Dec. 31, 2016, call between Flynn and Kislyak; a Jan. 12, 2017, call between Flynn and Kislyak; and a Jan. 19, 2017, voicemail from Kislyak to Flynn.
The new records also include what appear to be summaries of a Jan. 5, 2016, call between a redacted participant, Flynn, and Kislyak; an entirely redacted Dec. 22, 2016, conversation; the Dec. 23, 2016, call between Flynn, Kislyak, and Pchelyakov; a voicemail for Flynn from Kislyak’s chief of staff Dmitry Chernyshev Andreyevitch; and the Dec. 29, 2016, call between Flynn and Kislyak.
During the Dec. 31, 2016 discussion, Kislyak told Flynn, “Our conversation was also taken into account in Moscow and ... your proposal that we need to act with cold heads, uh, is exactly what is uh, invested in the decision.”
Kislyak also claimed that the actions by the Obama administration “have targeted not only against Russia, but also against the president elect [Trump].” The Russian ambassador said he believed Obama took the actions he did “because people are dissatisfied with the lost of elections." Kislyak also said, “We are hoping within two weeks we will be able to start working in more constructive way.”
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, newly sworn-in after taking over for former acting spy chief and U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, released a statement explaining his decision to make the Flynn-Kislyak conversations public.
“As I stated throughout the confirmation process, transparency is vital to allowing the American people to have confidence in the Intelligence Community,” Ratcliffe said. “As the director of national intelligence, it is my obligation to review declassification requests with the overarching priority of protecting sources and methods while also providing transparency whenever possible. Accordingly, today, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified transcripts concerning Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.”
Earlier this month, Grenell released a declassified National Security Agency document containing a list of dozens of Obama administration officials, including former Vice President Joe Biden, who were authorized recipients of information in response to "unmasking" requests that revealed Flynn's identity in surveillance intercepts. The former Trump national security adviser's name was reportedly not masked in the FBI reports on his conversations with Kislyak during the presidential transition period.
Working with his initial team from Covington & Burling LLP, Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to investigators about his December 2016 conversations with Kislyak about sanctions on Russia and a United Nations resolution on Israel. The FBI intercepted Flynn's discussions with Kislyak, after which fired FBI agent Peter Strzok and another agent, believed to be Joseph Pientka, grilled him on the contents of the conversation on Jan. 24, 2017.
Sidney Powell, a former federal prosecutor, took over Flynn's representation last summer and fought to dismiss the government's case against him.
The Justice Department moved to dismiss the false statements charges against Flynn earlier this month, telling the court that “this crime, however, requires a statement to be not simply false, but ‘materially’ false with respect to a matter under investigation” and emphasized that “materiality is an essential element of the offense.”
“The Government is not persuaded that the January 24, 2017, interview was conducted with a legitimate investigative basis and therefore does not believe Mr. Flynn’s statements were material even if untrue,” U.S. Attorney Timothy Shea said in his court filing. “Moreover, we not believe that the Government can prove either the relevant false statements or their materiality beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Former FBI Director James Comey admitted last year he took advantage of the chaos in the early days of Trump's administration when he sent Strzok and Pientka to talk to Flynn in January 2017.
Flynn's lawyers have touted FBI records released last week as exculpatory evidence that was concealed from the defense team. The documents suggest that Strzok and the FBI’s leadership stopped the bureau from closing its investigation into Flynn in early January 2017 after investigators had uncovered “no derogatory information” on him. Emails from later that month show Strzok, along with then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page and several others, sought out ways to continue investigating Flynn, including by deploying the Logan Act.
Among the other records unveiled to the public were handwritten notes from former FBI Assistant Director of the Counterintelligence Division Bill Priestap on the day the FBI interviewed Flynn. “I agreed yesterday that we shouldn’t show Flynn [REDACTED] if he didn’t admit,” but “I thought about it last night, and I believe we should rethink this,” Priestap wrote. “What is our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
After the release of the transcripts, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said, "These transcripts clearly demonstrate that Lt. General Michael Flynn lied to the FBI and the Vice President when he denied discussing sanctions in a then-secret set of conversations with the Russian Ambassador."
Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, who had sought access to the Flynn-Kislyak calls since 2017, said, “Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, his legal team, the judge, and the American people can now see with their own eyes — for the first time — that all of the innuendo about Lt. General Flynn this whole time was totally bunk” and that “there was nothing improper about his call, and the FBI knew it.”
"For too long, the investigation of Lt. Gen. Flynn and others has been fueled by pernicious leaks, likely for political purposes, instead of the facts," said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson. The Wisconsin Republican, who is carrying out an inquiry into the broader unmasking saga, added that “this is an important step in my committee’s ongoing investigation of the apparent flurry of ‘unmasking’ of U.S. persons affiliated with the Trump campaign and transition teams by numerous members of President Obama’s administration.”
DOJ spokeswoman Kerri Kupec announced on Wednesday that Attorney General William Barr selected John Bash, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, to carry out a deep dive into the unmaskings to assist the broader review of the Trump-Russia investigators being conducted by U.S. Attorney John Durham.
Johnson and Grassley of Iowa told Grenell they were expanding the scope of their "unmasking" investigation requests to include information as early as January 2016. Graham sent a letter to Grenell last week asking him to declassify any unmasking requests made between Trump’s November 2016 victory and his January 2017 inauguration that revealed the identity of anyone in Trump’s orbit. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked for the intelligence reports related to Flynn’s conversations to be declassified.